Have we taken a wrong turn? Applying sociotechnical systems principles in road design

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Gemma Read, Centre for Human Factors and Sociotechnical Systems, University of the Sunshine Coast

Sociotechnical systems theory (STS) has been a successful approach for organisational design (Mumford, 2006). Encompassing open systems principles, STS advocates for system adaptability, while maintaining a strong humanist perspective involving the promotion of human wellbeing and avoidance of wider negative societal consequences. To achieve these ends, STS proposes a range of system design principles.
Given increasing acknowledgement that road transport is a complex sociotechnical system, we were interested in whether STS design principles could be successfully applied to road design. This question arises because the end users of the road transport system are members of the public rather than workers who are managed within an organisational context and existing designs tend to promote certainty, behavioural control and separation.

In two studies, aspects of the road transport system were re-designed using an approach based on STS: urban railway level crossings (Read et al, in press) and urban intersections (Read et al, 2015). Although the design approach incorporated STS principles, the new design concepts varied in the extent to which they aligned with STS, with some aspects of concepts strongly aligned and others not.
To evaluate the railway level crossing designs, 30 drivers participated in a simulation study where they experienced three new design concepts and an existing crossing design. Participants provided their perceptions of the designs and rated their preference across the four crossings. To evaluate the intersection designs, 21 end users (drivers, cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians) participated in a workshop where they reviewed schematics of the new designs and provided feedback. Participants also provided a rank order preference for the four intersections (three new and the existing).

The evaluations of the designs raised some concerns regarding the aspects of the designs that aligned with STS. Issues reported by participants included concerns that there was insufficient control and protection of road users (e.g. cyclists given too much flexibility in behaviour or lack of physical barriers to prevent road users from entering a railway level crossing). Some participants reported that certain STS aspects might be beneficial at lower-risk locations.

These early evaluations suggest that aspects of road designs based on STS may not be readily acceptable to some road users. Potentially, this lack of acceptance may extend to other public safety contexts. The explanation for this may lie in cultural, legal and historical factors, suggesting that higher level structural changes would be required for the designs to be successfully implemented. Further research could consider what changes to societal structures would be required to enable revolutionary design in road transport from an STS perspective.

Date & time

7-8 June 2016

NCTL Learning and Conference Centre, Nottingham

What is a Complex System?

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